“How can I ‘honor’ my parents when they’re such miserable, difficult people?”
A friend of mine asked me this question while gritting her teeth to get through Mother’s Day, and hoping that something comes up to get her out of Father’s Day next month.
Her mother is a very trying, mercurial, and challenging woman and this friend has exactly the sort of love/hate relationship one develops with a parent who has many wounds and issues of his/her own, and seems to have more energy for tearing down than for building up. Her father is marginally better, but they are a package deal, in any case.
My own interesting relationship with my parents once forced me to go looking for an answer to that very question, and I found it in the helpful words of Rabbi Simon Jacobson, here speaking on honoring parents who don’t seem to deserve honor:
“Why isn’t there a commandment to love our parents? Because they don’t always deserve our love. But if we dishonor the life that G-d gave us through our parents, then it’s not that we’re dishonoring our parents, we’re dishonoring ourselves, we’re dishonoring our own personal life. […] It’s not just about your relationship with your parents, it’s about your relationship with your life. Remember, what your parents gave you was life. And if they did not provide to you the healthiest type of nurturing, it’s not just a question that now I’m going to get even or that they don’t deserve my respect, what happens to your life? Do you also dishonor your life?
So honoring your parents is like telling you to honor the life that was given to you, even if your parents were almost incidental, or they did everything possible to crush that life. In the worst scenario, the life is still there. Should you dishonor the life, you will become not only a victim of your parents, but you will continue to loathe yourself and dishonor G-d and your own soul.
So therefore, honoring your parents is really about our connection to G-d. Now it’s interesting, in the Ten Commandments [when Moses] came down with the two tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments, five of them were inscribed on one tablet and five on the other. And in the holy books it tells us that the five on one tablet were the laws and the commandments between human beings and G-d (in other words, our relationship with G-d—as we see in the first commandments “I am the L-rd your G-d,” “Don’t create other gods,” “Don’t blaspheme G-d”) and the second tablet contains the next five commandments which are between man and man, human relations (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not covet”).
Where is the commandment to honor your parents? It’s the fifth of the first tablet; the fifth of the laws in our relationship with G-d. Now, one can easily argue that honoring our parents falls under the category of our relationship with other people. But if you bear in mind what I’ve been saying, you’ll realize that honoring your parents is actually one of the laws between us and G-d, it’s a relationship with G-d. It’s not between you and your parents. Obviously it spills over and in a way you can even call it an intermediary between the first five commandments and the next. Maybe that’s why it’s the fifth—because it carries G-d over into the next dimension. In other words, it’s how G-d plays itself out in human relations and then that carries over in how we treat others, but it’s ultimately about the sanctity of life.
And in that circumstance, no matter what, honoring your parents is an absolute commandment without conditions, because in the worst scenario, honoring life is the key. G-d is essentially saying that even if you had parents who did not deserve your honor or respect or love, since you were born through them, honor that element.”
The Rabbi continues, “Now what does that mean practically?” Read the rest of his discourse, here.